Lexington, Ky., April 30, 2006 -- The surprises never stopped coming at this year's $200,000 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Who would have guessed that someone who was 17th after dressage would wind up winning the hotly contested 4-star at the Kentucky Horse Park?
Australian Andrew Hoy certainly didn't think of it until "only about one minute before the last competitor went in."
Andrew, who moved up to sixth with Master Monarch after cross-country, had to wait through five more rides following his double clear this afternoon to find out where he would place.
All five of those ahead of him in the standings had problems, but all the attention naturally was on the overnight leader, Becky Holder, aboard Courageous Comet. She looked so nervous riding into the arena, having never been in this position before. I've seen it happen several times at Rolex, where the pressure gets to those unaccustomed to handling it even before the starter's bell rings.
Richard Jeffery, a much-honored course designer, did his usual magic with jumps that represented well-known Kentucky landmarks, such as Calumet and Lane's End Farm. But Becky, Saturday's Cinderella, couldn't find her fairy godmother (who must have been at the trade fair) and dropped four fences, putting her 13th.
It took all of us photographers in the infield a moment to figure out who would take home the $65,000 first prize and the Rolex watch that went with it. This was an event you couldn't make book on. Remember what happened to the three leaders from dressage? They went down to defeat on a cross-country course whose influence made a lie of the current wisdom that eventing is evolving into a dressage and show jumping test.
That being said, Andrew is a more-than-worthy winner with a long history at the Horse Park, which will be hosting the World Equestrian Championships four years from now.
"If I am competing here in 2010, I think I will be the only rider who competed here in 1978. Little has changed, not my weight and my height, just my hairstyle," laughed Andrew, who is mostly bald. But that hasn't kept him from being the crowd's favorite.
Every time he appeared, he got cheers of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie; Hoy, Hoy, Hoy" which is a corruption of a rugby cheer that goes something like, "Oggy, Oggy, Oggy; Oi, Oi, Oi." We first heard the Hoy version at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where he won team gold and individual silver. The six-time Olympian kept responding to the crowd with verve, waving fondly and at one point, even bowing to them, humbly thanking them for their support.
Master Monarch stood regally, living up to his name, surveying the crowd from his dark brown-coated majesty. This 15-year-old British-bred horse finished third at Badminton last year, so you knew he was top drawer even before he set hoof in the arena.
Second place went to Heidi White and the talented Northern Spy, who had to contend with the rain that started spritzing down near the end of the competition, turning into a downpour only after the results were in, luckily.
Heidi, who is trained by the world's No. 1 eventer of 2005, Australian Philip Dutton, tried a hackamore on Northern Spy for the jumping and blamed herself for two fences down. Her score was 57.4 penalties, to 53.1 for Andrew. Without the knockdowns, she would have won, but as she noted, being second to Andrew is in itself an honor. And she didn't go away empty-handed, winning the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's 4-star championship as the top-placed American.
The 90,748 folks who turned up at Rolex this year, nearly 15,000 more than last year's attendance, certainly got their money's worth. This is a crowd that revels in the sport, with hundreds even jamming in for the final vet check on Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. I guess they weren't partying the night before.
It's amazing to see so many people alongside the geranium-lined pavement where the horses trot up, appreciatively applauding those who pass the vets' scrutiny and sympathizing with those who don't. It's a mini-fashion show, too. I loved the female riders who jogged their horses while wearing stiletto heels, the kind I can't even walk in!
Ralph Hill played to the crowd, pulling up his pants leg to show striped pink and orange socks while he jogged Bad Boy Billy. (Note to Andrew: Ralph also competed here in 1978 and even though he's 53, you could possibly see him in 2010. He hasn't missed a Rolex Kentucky in 28 years.)
After the jog, I ran into Darren Chiacchia, the leader from dressage, who had three refusals on cross-country with Windfall II and dropped out.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I don't have a really good answer for you," he told me. "It's a shame. That horse has not put a foot wrong cross-country for more than three years. The good news is, he looks fantastic and now we just have to create a plan to get back on track and keep in contention for the World Equestrian Games. He just had a bad day."
He wasn't the only one. How would you like to be Mark Phillips, the U.S. eventing technical advisor/coach? On Saturday, he saw top contenders Windfall and Royal Venture go up in smoke, in effect (Vennie's rider, Kim Severson, fell at the Head of the Lake after some problems earlier in the course). And today, he watched up-and-coming riders who took over the lead here have big problems in show jumping. It all adds up to trouble for the team, with the WEG coming up fast this August in Aachen, Germany.
Mark and the selectors huddled with a downcast Darren for a long time this morning, trying to figure out what should be done to get Windfall "back on track." Of course, they have plenty of doubts about him now.
"He can't go to a world championships off what he did this time," Mark said.
"Everyone has another run before the world championships, the question is what should that run be? It could be Luhmuhlen (another 4-star in Germany), it could be Jersey Fresh, it could be a horse trials."
As for Royal Venture, "we'll see how he is and how she (Kim) feels about him."
Of course, Mark is glad she still has three-time Rolex winner Winsome Adante waiting in the wings. And the good news from this competition included Amy Tryon's Woodstock, who was fifth here (but needs to work on his show jumping) and her Poggio II, the Olympic veteran who she withdrew after dressage because she didn't think he needed to prove anything more than he already has.
Stephen Bradley told me that From, who was fifth in dressage but withdrawn before cross-country, only had a twisted shoe, but they decided it was too risky to run him right after tacking on a new shoe and will try Jersey Fresh in June instead. Stephen's other horse, Brandenburg's Joshua, was third on 59.7 penalties, so he's another possibility.
I'm sure that the selectors and Mark will sort it out and get a good team together by August; I'm just glad I don't have to do it!
Tune in to NBC for a one-hour television special of this year's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, airing Sunday, May 7 at 2 p.m. EDT.